Airpocalypse Now: China’s Tipping Point?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The recent run of air pollution in China, we now know, has been worse than the air quality in airport smoking lounges. At its worst, Beijing air quality has approached levels only seen in the United States during wildfires.

All of the comparisons to London, Los Angeles, and New York in the last century are beside the point. Air pollution at these concentrations constitutes a public health emergency. Fine particulate (PM2.5) concentrations of 250 µg/m3 are considered emergency levels. This past month, air pollution in Chinese cities has regularly been two, three, even four times this emergency threshold (and up to 40 times levels the WHO considers healthy). In the worst cases, people are literally dying from this pollution. And PM2.5 is only the tip of the iceberg. China’s air is brimming with a heady mix of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, lead, mercury, and other assorted pollutants.

The recent “airpocalypse” is just the latest in a long series of environmental disasters in China that have the world wondering whether a tipping point is imminent. Will it be China’s equivalent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the U.S. (or the Minamata mercury poisoning cases in Japan, or the Great Smog of 1952 in the UK)? That is, a catalyst for genuine environmental change?

My own view is that China’s tipping point, in a sense, already arrived a few years ago. But the official response has been wholly inadequate to the task. Fundamental weaknesses in the way that China has approached its environmental protection efforts mean that the environmental crisis has continued to run amok.

What do I mean exactly? I set forth my theory in greater detail in a forthcoming article in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, but here are a few highlights:

The Moment. In 2006, the Chinese leadership established a number of key environmental performance targets for energy efficiency and pollution reduction. While these targets are well-known, less recognized was the dramatic elevation of the priority of these targets, making them important criteria in the job evaluations of local government leaders across the country. This had never before been the case.

Mark Ralston & Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
This combination of photos shows a file photo of Beijing's Tiananmen Square during heavily polluted weather (top) on January 31, 2013, and during clear weather (bottom) on February 1, 2013. Residents across huge swathes of northern China have in recent weeks battled through choking pollution at extreme levels, as Beijing was plunged into toxic twilight for the fourth time this winter.

Why The Response Has Not Worked #1. The fundamental problem was that the main targets were not linked to environmental quality outcomes. Rather, credit for pollution reduction might be granted, for example, for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant or installation of pollution control technology in a power plant. So, local officials were incentivized to invest in environmental infrastructure, and they happily obliged - engaging in a binge of investment in pollution control technology. But there was much less focus on whether these investments were operated properly such that they actually reduced pollution.

Why The Response Has Not Worked #2. China has faced the same problems with cheating anytime hard targets are coupled with insufficient monitoring. Outside of China, we have seen this in the context of targets for policing, school testing, and college rankings, just to name a few. In China, we now know that factories adjusted pollution control equipment to report false data, treatment plants were left idle, local governments forced emergency shutdowns of electricity to local public services (like hospitals) to meet energy efficiency targets, and so on.

The risk of China already having initiated substantial top-down action on the environment is that some officials will focus on the actions taken, rather than China’s actual environmental performance. Last year, a Chinese bureaucrat famously asked the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to stop public disclosure of air quality information because it “took credit” away from steps Chinese regulators had taken. But, Chinese citizens don’t care that China has installed an unprecedented number of flue gas desulfurization units in power plants. They care about clean air.

Fortunately, the initial response to the “airpocalypse” shows some promise. China’s newfound transparency in air monitoring and media coverage has been breath of fresh air, so to speak. Beijing has also moved relatively quickly on short-term emergency measures, such as limits on coal burning and vehicle use.

Yet, China’s problems are so vast and its growth so explosive that its first environmental tipping point, in a sense, requires another tipping point of its own to force necessary implementation reforms.

So, what’s to be done? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Establish hard targets for environmental quality outcomes against which governors and mayors are held strictly accountable.
  • Announce harsh penalties to deter the inevitable impulse toward falsification of data.  Offer substantial rewards for meeting performance targets.
  • Expand environmental transparency to empower the public to better “supervise the government.” Simply put, environmental regulators are  not powerful enough to monitor and withstand pressure from growth-oriented governments and corporations on their own. Regulators need the support of public opinion.
  • Accelerate nascent efforts to increase the use of cleaner energy (natural gas, renewables) and improve energy efficiency, which have benefits for the economy and the environment.
  • Rinse and repeat. Make this a long-term campaign of continuous environmental improvement that lasts beyond the current wave of media attention.


While no one can be gratified by the severe levels of air-pollution found in Beijing and other Chinese cities, I worry far less about such conventional forms of pollution than emissions of green-house gasses. After all, the world has long-since known how to clean up air pollution. The U.K. ended the “London fog” by modifying its use of coal. New York City did the same. And Los Angeles made huge steps forward in reducing smog levels caused by automobiles with catalytic converters and fuel efficiency standards. Beijing can presumably do the same.

On the other hand, what we do not yet have any ready remedies for are the emissions of C02, methane, and other forms of heat-trapping gasses, which can neither be seen smelled or sensed… until, that is, their long-term climate-warming effects are experienced, when it is too late.

This is a far greater cause for concern than the dirty air hanging over Beijing.


Orville, obviously you are right that climate change is the whole shebang--growing water scarcity, increasing incidence of natural disasters, problems with pestilence, sea level rise, etc.  The list of potential terrible outcomes goes on and on. Nonetheless, for the residents of Beijing and many other Chinese cities, spending each day as though they were living in a smoking lounge is no doubt even more terrifying than the prospect of more floods and droughts. And yes, while China has long had the knowledge to respond effectively to its air quality challenges, it hasn't yet done so. So let's not dismiss the significance of the current challenge or the people's fears.

Alex has set out much of what Beijing needs to do to put real change in  motion. To his list, I would add only two more needs for change. First Beijing needs to devote greater resources to environmental protection. After all, according to the most recent government statistics, China invests only 1.3-1.5 percent of GDP in environmental protection--that puts it well below the 2.2 percent that Chinese scientsts have claimed is necessary just to keep the environmental situation from deteriorating. (In other words, even 2.2 percent isn't adequate if Beijing actually wants to improve the environmental conditions in the country.) Investment is needed not only in environmental technologies--which is generally the part officials in China find easiest--but also in human resources. Can it still be the case that there are only 300-400 people in China's Environmental Protection Ministry in Beijing. Certainly the number of inspectors and qualified people to monitor pollution throughout the country is also woefully inadequate to the task. And how about empowering the legal system with a few more environmental lawyers? Thus, investment in human capital to improve the environmental situation is critical.    

Second, urbanization needs to be a much more carefully considered process. Few, if any Chinese cities--either those that are new or those that are growing--are being developed with best energy and environmental practices. Since urban residents use on average 3.5 times more energy than their rural counterparts, and plans are underway to "urbanize" another several hundred million people in the coming decades, there is no more time to waste on "model" cities and showcase sustainability demonstration projects. 

Li Keqiang has said that the air quality problem has been a long time in the making and will be a long time in the fixing. I am not sure that many Beijing residents have the kind of patience that Li desires. And if they don't, we might see a tipping point in China that goes well beyond the environment. 

Now, standing in for regular ChinaFile Conversationalist Isabel Hilton, is Sam Geall, Departmental Lecturer in Human Geography of China at University of Oxford and Executive Editor of our U.K.-based online publishing partner

"Whether the goal is cleaning up chronic air pollution or limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, Alex is right to suggest that greater environmental transparency can help empower the public to demand regulations are enforced where short-term economic gains would otherwise trump environmental concerns.

But prior attempts to increase openness through “sunshine laws” in China have not been encouraging.

China adopted its Regulations on Open Government Information in 2008, which were operationalized as a specific decree by the environment ministry. While there has been some limited progress, the environmental information being released still falls far short of what citizens need to know.

As data-focused green campaigner Ma Jun pointed out in response to the recent smog: “City environmental protection bureaus should know about sources of air pollution in their jurisdictions, but to date the only information released is a few crude statistics listing pollution from vehicles, coal power plants, industry, construction dust, agriculture, and regional sources. This information is too general and does not enable the public to participate in emissions reduction.”

Moreover, citizens who have used the law to request data disclosure – like Xie Yong, a resident of Nantong, in Jiangsu province, who believed that toxic emissions from an incineration plant near his home had poisoned his son – have been repeatedly denied access to information. In Xie’s case, “on the grounds that releasing data would compromise the company’s business secrets.”

Newly energetic campaigns around air quality information—and indeed, protests among middle-class urbanites concerned about their lack of a stake in planning decisions—are a ray of hope. But for now, I’m not holding my breath." Sam Geall

I have never been this pessimistic about air pollution as I have over the past month, except for a couple of days when pollution dropped to almost nothing. Since we started photographically documenting China's air quality in March 2007, January has been the worst month in terms of both pollution severity and longevity—almost 20 days of hazardous readings in a row. The second worst was Christmas week 2007, when the Chinese government's own reading topped out at 500 one day and registered at 420 another day. 

Looking back at the 2008 Olympics honeymoon period and to the couple of years afterwards—when blue skies in Beijing were not uncommon—I think the key to the solution is a cocktail of curtailing industy, including burning coal, and pollution from construction, all across north China and cleaning up the fleet of cars in the region, among other things. The Olympics certainly shut down most of north China for a few months, and the financial crisis probably helped the air quality, too.

Before air pollution got back in the headlines again in 2011, I'd become quite optimistic by looking at Beijing’s daily photos, and thought things were really getting better. See March 2011 here. Soon after, the bad pollution was back. Here's our snapshot of four months in 2012.

As Alex said, the explosive economic growth and shoddy environmental record in China have combined to put bad air back in the spotlight again like never before. And I am now a believer that it makes sense for the Chinese government's own clean air agenda to put a deadline somewhere around 2035, which may be excruciatingly unsatisfying to some but, on the other hand,  pragmatically plausible. China probably doesn’t want to unplug its economic engine voluntarily. What it can do is really tighten up the regulation.

Here’s a good weibo joke (or not) if China needs some advice: let the people choose whichever river a local environmental protection bureau chief has to swim through if he wants to keep his job.

Orville, I agree with you in the broad strokes. But the fact that we know how as a technical matter to address conventional air pollution doesn't tell us anything about whether and how quickly the job will get done in practice. So that will be cold comfort to those who have no choice but to breathe this pollution. I’m with Liz on this point.

On a more positive note, China’s State Council announced last week a 2015 total energy use cap (set at 4 billion tons of standard coal equivalent). It looks like this will be a political target for local government leaders, which is a good thing. Local officials will be motivated. However, as I say above, without stronger deterrence against cheating, we can expect widespread implementation problems. Jon Garnaut’s article on this news highlights what for me is the key challenge:

Professor Pan said there was no question the State Council would meet its target but he noted that measurement methods were not robust.

“In some cases statistics may not be able to provide accurate information and some numbers may have to be estimates, which gives a certain degree of flexibility.” [Emphasis added.]

So much has been said so well here that I won't attempt to add to the substance. As Orville Schell points out, for the world as a whole the emissions caused by China’s growth are obviously the most consequential issue. As everyone else points out, for people inside many big Chinese cities (and too much of the countryside) the pollution itself is having un-ignorable public health, social, and political effects.

Apart from its intrinsic importance on both fronts, I think the current enviro-pocalypse (it’s obviously more than just “air”) has the potential for helping the outside world understand the complexities and difficulties of China’s “rise.” Along with many other members of this conversation—and in large part because I’ve been informed by your work—I have felt for years that environmental despoliation in all its forms was the next profound challenge to what is often portrayed as the Chinese juggernaut. It’s possible that China’s struggles with the issue now, and the response of the press, of nascent “civil society,” of the reformers-or-not in the new leadership group, of industry, etc. will give people who don’t otherwise care about China a sense of the tensions and pressures at play there—and the unknowability of the outcome.

Meanwhile, I will selfishly hope that conditions improve before my next visit in a month.

At the suggestion of regular contributor Susan Shirk, Deborah Seligsohn, researcher at the University of California at San Diego and senior advisor to the the World Resources Institute ChinaFAQs Network, joins the ChinaFile Conversation with the following responses to our earlier posts:

“The Chinese people clearly need both a cleaner environment and greater access to information about the state of their environment. However, saying that there is much more that needs to be done is not the same as saying that the Chinese government has done nothing or that the things they have done thus far are either wrong or ineffective. They may well have been effective, but not enough.

The reason to bring up London, Los Angeles, etc., is precisely to understand the development trajectory that leads to better air quality (as our current example), the time frame and the types of measures needed. The reality is that Los Angeles began to struggle to control air pollution in the mid-1950s (and, to use Orville’s frame, it was known what was needed to be done), but if one had looked in the early 1970s, air quality was no better. What that told Los Angelinos is that they needed more state and national efforts—hence the Clean Air Act of 1970—and additional measures at home. What they had done up to that point was useful, but insufficient.

Beijing, in particular, is in the same position today. In truth, Beijing has done a great deal to clean up its air. Not only has Beijing followed the national program to install scrubbers, monitor them and get them all up and running (which scholarly research tells us has been successful), but the city eliminated household-level coal-burning in the inner cities, mandated the highest auto emissions standards in China, installed NOx control equipment on power plants in advance of the new nationwide 12th Five Year Plan requirement, closed down many old and inefficient factories, provided some of the least expensive public transportation in the world, and has imposed a number of restrictions on vehicles. Could it do more? Sure, and I would agree with Liz that urban planning is an obvious area. But the truth is that Beijing is controlling a lot of its own sources of pollution, and the much greater variation in pollution levels from day to day in Beijing today, compared to a decade ago, is because a greater percentage of it is coming from outside the city than ever before.

Thus, the greatest reason for seeing hope in the kind of “airpocalypse” that just occurred is that it is a useful lever for pushing the central government to push greater regional air quality management on surrounding provinces. China announced regional air quality management regulations in 2010 with an implementation date of 2015. Thus, it has the tools, and the public outcry might just provide the leverage needed.

The reality is that monitoring ambient air and water is important, and informing the public ought to be a matter of course (and, of course, isn’t on many issues in China), but the tools actually needed to control pollution are complex and separate from the measurement question. To control PM 2.5 requires controls on SO2, NOx, black carbon and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The sulfur controls brought in with the 11th Five Year Plan have made a real contribution, but are not enough on their own. Adding NOx controls in the 12th Five Year Plan will help. The regional air quality regulations appear to envisage VOC control, which would be a major and important advance. This complexity is why it takes a long time to clean up air as dirty as Beijing’s or L.A.’s or London’s. There is an administrative and logistical challenge to addressing multiple sources and their complexity.

The complexity of airsheds is why getting the tools and the monitoring of the actual controls on specific emissions is far more urgent at this point than the kinds of mayoral “hard targets” on ambient air quality that Alex proposes. China tends to impose these types of general goals, but then, because sources are not just inside the city but also outside, mayors get frustrated and want to cheat. Far better to control all the sources, step by step, install national monitoring and get the system integrated. If each mayor and provincial governor were responsible for the sources in his or her geographic area, cities such as Beijing would see better results.

These problems are every bit as real and as important as the greenhouse gas challenge. Moreover, in most cases, cleaning up local air pollutants also contributes to cleaning up greenhouse gases. This is either because—as is the case with both black carbon and nitrogen dioxide—they are both warming agents and air pollutants, or because cleaning up the fuel raises costs and thus encourages conservation. In any case, there is no reason to see these goals in conflict, and every reason to believe that if China could deliver clean air to its people it might have greater capacity and faith to redouble its efforts on greenhouse gases. After all, that is what happened when China turned to address HIV/AIDS in the wake of its success in “conquering SARS.” It was the anti-SARS effort that gave the Ministry of Health new capacity, confidence and clout within the government. The net result: we have all probably forgotten that in 2002 the United Nations predicted there would be over 10 million cases of HIV/AIDS by 2010, and in the event there were fewer than 1 million (the same number as in the much smaller United States). The Ministry of Environment has been fairly effective to date in using public outcry to increase its own capacity within the government. These bureaucratic efforts are always frustratingly slow, but the Ministry is in a far stronger position than it was when it became a Ministry in 2007, and has far more ability to enforce than was imaginable when it became an enforcement agency in 1998. Thus, there is urgent need for progress, and some real possibility that it might happen.